On our media training courses we often place a lot of emphasis on the importance of spokespeople maintaining their composure during media interviews.
All too often we see interviewees fall into the trap of losing their calm and showing anger and frustration when they become uncomfortable with a line of questioning.
And sometimes it really doesn’t take much to get them rattled.
Not only does this ensure their messages are missed but it also makes interviews memorable for all the wrong reasons.
One spokesperson this week, however, produced a great example of how to remain calm and assured during a particularly hostile interview.
In fact, in something of a role reversal, it was the journalist who showed her annoyance.
It happened on BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ programme on Monday (20/8) – which you can hear at 2:18 on this link - when Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Business, Fair Works and Skills, was interviewed by Gillian Marles.
He appeared on the programme to defend the Scottish Government after it emerged it had given nearly £200,000 state aid to Raytheon, a US company which manufactures guidance systems in Fife for Paveway missiles.
It was a challenging interview from the start, with a piece introducing the section accusing the government of being ‘cakeist’ – wanting to have the jobs that come from the company but not being happy with what they produce.
Here is an example of one of the early questions he faced: “The signal you are sending is that you are supporting a company that, as you accept, makes components which goes into these Paveway bombs which are then used, as has been identified by the likes of Amnesty, in places like Yemen, where civilians are killed. You are quite relaxed about that are you?”
Challenging stuff. But it was not so much the line of questioning that caught my attention. It was the constant interruptions he faced to his answers.
There are numerous examples during the interview of Mr Hepburn responding to a question only for the journalist to talk over his response.
This is something many spokespeople find frustrating and it can result in interviews descending into little more than an argument, which, while offering good entertainment, usually assures messages do not come across.
But Mr Hepburn only once showed the slightest glimmer of annoyance, towards the end, saying ‘can you let me finish the point’.
While the politician maintained a very calm tone, despite the pressure, it was the reporter who appeared to show signs of losing her composure.
After asking him whether he had ever prevented the promotion of any of his visits to schools or businesses - a reference to a reportedly ‘secret meeting’ another minister had with the company - she attempted to interrupt him five times, and accused him of not answering the question, before ending the interview abruptly.
His response to that final question was interrupted so often and so loudly that it was impossible to really tell whether he was trying to answer it or evade it.
On our media training courses, we tell delegates that if an interview does become hostile, the audience will be much more likely to remain sympathetic if the spokesperson remains calm.
And that seems to have been the case here with social media users generally seeming to show support of Mr Hepburn, while being less than complimentary of Ms Marles.
Credit to Jamie Hepburn for staying cool while being shouted down by a presenter who appeared to have overdosed on caffeine this morning. The contrast with how all other interviewees have been dealt with is stark. #bbcgms— Saoirse (@zer0deConduit) August 20, 2018
Jamie Hepburn was professional, intelligent, articulate, sensible, smart, unphased & generally wonderful, Gillian Marles was just awful. Is this a reflection of her personal views or under @BBCRadioScot instructions? @jamiehepburn— Marilyn 🏴🇪🇺 (@StarryTowers) August 20, 2018
I thought Gillian Marles' head was going to explode. She could not possibly have been any more rude or unprofessional.— J. R. Tomlin (@JRTomlinAuthor) August 20, 2018
This is absolutely shocking & unprofessional interview technique from Gillian Marles, especially the near hysterics at the end of the piece. Well done @jamiehepburn for calmly & thoroughly answering the questions all the way through. https://t.co/Rxw4AWpH1z— Robert Tyre (@RobertTyreBute) August 20, 2018
BBC Scotland would be failing in their duty if they ignored this issue and it’s good that they had on a government minister to respond.— Niall (@niallbtwit) August 20, 2018
It’s just a shame @jamiehepburn wasn’t allowed to answer the last question and was repeatedly interrupted.
Aside from his composure, there were a few other parts to Mr Hepburn’s interview that I liked and which other spokespeople can learn from.
Often we find that when an interview becomes hostile, or the journalist pursues an aggressive line of questioning, the spokesperson will either start providing short answers or will just answer the questions asked with no attempt to try to move the conversation on.
Both are dangerous as they give the journalist complete control of the interview and typically result in the pressure being increased.
Mr Hepburn produced full and detailed answers and at one point he even included an example of where some of the £200,000 had been spent, on a collaboration between the company and Strathclyde University on a research and development project on commercial aviation.
He also avoided repeating the negative language in the journalist’s questions, whereas many spokespeople often feel the need to repeat negative words and phrases in order to rebut them.
Hostile interviews are undoubtedly challenging, but Mr Hepburn showed that spokespeople can emerge from them unscathed.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.